On Sunday, July 5, 2009, a multiple-alarm fire destroyed four buildings totaling approximately 240,000 square feet at the Patrick Cudahy meat-packing plant in Cudahy, WI. The four three- and four-story buildings were constructed in 1893 of heavy timber with 18-inch brick walls. The buildings were used for storage, microwave bacon production, ham production and maintenance.

The Cudahy Fire Department was dispatched at 10:52 P.M. to Patrick Cudahy at One Sweet Applewood Drive after maintenance workers called 911 reporting smoke in a building. Responding on the initial alarm were Engine 1463, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and Quint 1474, a 100-foot aerial with a 2,000-gpm pump, under the command of Lieutenant Dean Nelson.

Upon arrival, Nelson on Engine 1463 met with a maintenance person who reported heavy smoke on the second and third floors of Buildings C and D. With this information, Nelson requested a full assignment at 11:02 P.M., which brought engines from Cudahy, St. Francis and Oak Creek, a 100-foot truck from South Milwaukee and chiefs from the four communities to the fire.

The employees had evacuated the building upon the arrival of firefighters. As fire crews located the general area of the fire, personnel from Patrick Cudahy were instructed to isolate and pump out all hot-gas discharge valves, high-pressure liquid valves and high-temperature recirculation values because of an ammonia threat.

Initial Attack

Once gaining access to the structure, a crew of four firefighters and one maintenance person entered Building E, which led to the second floor of Building D where heavy white smoke was discovered. Firefighters encountered multiple difficulties on the second floor that included the massive size of the building, microwave transmitters and numerous entanglement hazards. A thermal imaging camera was used through the heavy smoke, but did not register any heat with temperatures in the area remaining around 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Firefighters from South Milwaukee were sent to the roof, where they found fire burning through the roof in an area approximately four feet wide by 25 feet long. At this time, the crew opened the scuttles and determined that the fire appeared to be burning in the space between the roof and a drop ceiling. The roof conditions were continually monitored until it was determined that access to the fire from below would not be practical. Firefighters advanced two 2½-inch hoselines, attacked the fire burning in the exposed roof rafters, and cut holes in the roof's weakened area where a cellar nozzle was placed into the fire space and worked in the fire area.

As the condition deteriorated, command requested at 11:18 P.M. a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) box alarm, which brought to the scene engines from Greenfield and Greendale, a 100-foot tower ladder from Franklin, a 100-foot aerial from Wauwatosa (a rapid intervention team), a specialized rescue unit from Wauwatosa, the Milwaukee Fire Bell Club for rehab and chiefs from Greenfield and Wauwatosa.

At 11:21 P.M., a second alarm was ordered followed shortly by a third alarm at 11:22 P.M., bringing engines from Hales Corners, West Allis, South Shore and Caledonia, a 100-foot aerial from North Shore, a 100-foot tower from Brookfield, and chiefs from West Allis and North Shore to the incident. A special request for a rehab unit from the Racine Fire Bell Club was made. Throughout the early-morning hours, firefighters worked to gain control of the fire and protect the D-side exposure housing the ammonia tanks, which officials feared could be compromised.

On the Defensive

After battling the fire on the roof for several hours, it appeared the fire had advanced into the unprotected cockloft of building D and that the roof of Building C was getting spongy. The decision was made at 2:34 A.M. to evacuate the roof and proceed as a defensive operation, which command anticipated by pre-placing apparatus for the worst-case scenario. During the firefighting operations, Patrick Cudahy officials continually worked to back off all ammonia from Building D and notified command that if the fire moved past Building E, large ammonia tanks had the potential to explode. With this information, firefighters placed hoselines and appliances on the first and third floors between Buildings D and E, as these areas were the only open areas that the fire could spread through. Fire crews operating in these areas picked up a release of ammonia on monitoring equipment, left their lines unmanned and backed out of the building. Once the ammonia was detected and it was determined that an ammonia line was leaking a significant amount through a pressurized line, command requested the Milwaukee Fire Department Hazmat Team to the scene to work with Patrick Cudahy's Level A team.

With the fire spreading through the cockloft area of Building E, command ordered fourth and fifth alarms, which were requested at 11:47 P.M. and on July 6 at 6:58 A.M., bringing additional engines from Oak Creek, North Shore, Racine, New Berlin and Waukesha, 100-foot aerials from West Allis, Menomonee Falls and Wauwatosa, and a chief from North Shore.

Evacuation of the City

At 4:37 A.M., a decision was made to open the Cudahy Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in preparation for evacuating the city's 15,000 residents. A second evacuation site had to be used as the original site was within the evacuation zone. A disaster plan for the plant updated just three weeks before the blaze called for the evacuation of one square mile.

With the city's water system quickly depleting and with the fire still spreading, a mandatory evacuation of the city was ordered for fear that an ammonia release into the atmosphere or an explosion could occur. The displaced residents were evacuated to a shelter set up in neighboring South Milwaukee, where many city, county and state agencies along with city officials, Cudahy Mayor Ryan McCue, the school district and the Red Cross assisted the evacuees until they were allowed to return to their homes 10 hours later.

Lessons Learned

The Incident Command System (ICS) was very effective along with the use of the MABAS that is in place. Communications worked seamlessly, even though the different agencies used UHF, VHF and 800-MHz radio systems. A disaster drill held two years earlier at Patrick Cudahy included many of the challenges encountered during the incident; this drill was a major factor and extremely beneficial to the successful outcome of the incident along with the expertise of the agencies that responded to the fire.

Accountability and needing to rotate and feed over 400 firefighters proved to be challenging for officials, along with refueling apparatus and repairing broken-down apparatus. The need for numerous aerial devices was met by MABAS strike teams that succeeded in getting the equipment to the scene. The city's water supply dropped to critical levels, which required water from Milwaukee's city system to be diverted to Cudahy to help supply the 33 million gallons of water used to extinguish the blaze.


An investigation into the fire was launched by the Cudahy Fire Department, Cudahy Police Department, federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), State of Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, Wisconsin State Patrol and Milwaukee County District Attorney's office. The investigation ultimately led to the arrest of two brothers, ages 24 and 25, with each being charged with one count of second-degree recklessly endangering safety.

The cause of the $50 million fire was a military-grade green start cluster marker flare fired from a nearby residential area. Security surveillance tapes from Patrick Cudahy alerted authorities to the location from which the flare was fired. Law enforcement officials recovered portions of the rocket and canister of the flare on the premises of Patrick Cudahy. The 24-year-old admitted that he had taken the flare while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps, and that while he was visiting the home of his parents, he instructed his brother how to fire the flare gun, which he did.

The Patrick Cudahy fire is reported to be the largest structure fire in Wisconsin history. The response of over 425 firefighters from 64 fire departments (not including support agencies) from a seven-county area proved that the MABAS works.

TIMOTHY J. STEIN is a member of the International Fire Photographers Association (IFPA) and has been a fire department photographer and historian for several communities in southeast Wisconsin for 19 years. GARY POSDA is a battalion chief and a 20-year veteran with the Cudahy, WI, Fire Department. He is president of the Milwaukee County Fire Training Officers Association and a fire instructor with a bachelor's degree in economics and an associate's degree in fire science. Posda serves on the Operations Committee for Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) Division 107. The authors would like to thank Cudahy Fire Chief Dan Mayer and the members of MABAS Wisconsin for their assistance in writing this article.